It will soon be that magical time of year again, Halloween. The shops are filled with costumes, giant spider webs and broomsticks, though they have to vie with the early addition of Christmas goodies. Still, we welcome any reason to celebrate as the dark night come ever closer. The air has changed too. It now smells of wood smoke and at night, the first hint of frost makes its clean and fresh. The weathermen predict the onset of winter this weekend and the crying of its wind always brings to mind ghostly tales. Don’t worry about that tiny glimpse you catch from the corner of your eye. It’s nothing more than the scurrying of nocturnal creatures or the way the shadows fall. Or is it?
The air in the attic smelt musty, mould hung from the rafters, trailing green tendrils that touched her face. Nora brushed them aside and shone her torch around the room. The trunk she was looking for was in the farthest corner and she chose her step with care, picking her way across the joists. If she put one foot wrong it meant plunging through the ceiling. Placing the torch on a box, she fumbled with the ancient lock and nodded in satisfaction as the lid groaned open. The smell from the interior was more pungent than the one surrounding her and she wafted her hand in front of her face. She knelt down, the wood as rough as glass on her tender knees, but she had to find the things she needed. They were all there, just as she’d left them many years ago; the herbs and dried roots, the potions still safe in the bottles and most importantly the grimoire, the book of power that would show her what to do. She stuffed the small bottles and herbs in to the pockets of her cardigan and tucked the book under her arm.
Her eyes travelled to the old suitcase beside the trunk, but she willed herself not to look. It held the few baby clothes she kept and she couldn’t bear to view them, not now. Her daughter, like many of the women in her family, had died before her time.
“Six months,” Nora muttered. “That’s all the time we had together, child.”
No, she could not think about it. She tore her eyes away. There was work to be done.
She was panting as she navigated the joists and relieved when she reached the top of the wooden ladder.
“Move, Seth,” she called to the dog, who was standing sentry at the bottom.
He got out of the way just in time, as the huge book flew down and landed with a thump on the floor. Nora didn’t bother to close the attic door. She would put everything back when she was finished. Seth followed at her heels as she made her way down in to the kitchen. She sat at the table and started to leaf through the book’s yellow and brittle pages.
“Yes, this is the one,” she read aloud words written in an ancient language and the dog cocked his ear at the strange sounds.
Nora spent the next few hours grinding and cooking the things she needed for the spells. She had been a child when she last seen the book put to use and her husband had forbid her to practise any of her strange arts, as he referred to them. She was descended from women of power, a power that lay dormant within her until now.
Dusk was falling by the time she was finished. The few streetlights that still had unbroken bulbs came on and a cold mist descended. Nora picked up the animals feeding bowls and scraped food from a tin in to each one. Next she poured some of the potion and mixed it with the food. Before placing it on the floor, she filled a small glass with the same potion and swallowed the lot in one quick gulp. It ran like fire through her body until it reached her stomach where it lay for a moment before spreading its warmth until her senses swam. She gripped the cold sink until the room steadied itself once more.
“It’s all right,” she looked down at the worried faces of the cat and dog.
Placing their bowls on the floor, she urged them to eat.
“Finish it all, my pets,” she smiled as they tucked in.
She felt better than she had in years, empowered, she thought. The hand that stroked the dog’s head was no longer veined and spotted with age. She held it up to the light and wondered at this. There was only one mirror in the house and that hung in the dark hallway. Nora turned on the light and gazed at her reflection. She was seventy-four-years-old and up to a few minutes ago looked every one of her years. Now, she looked younger, not girl young, but the fire within her had knocked at least twenty years off her age. She brought a hand to her face and felt the smoothness of the skin. She had never been a beauty and no one would call her such now, but she looked better. Turning off all the lights, she picked her way through the dark shapes of the furniture in the sitting room and stood at the window. So far no one had called at her house looking for treats, which was just as well, as the yob had taken her meagre few. She dreaded to think what those who were refused would do if they did call. There were childish screams as a small vampire, witch and mummy ran past her gate. They looked like wraiths scampering through the white mist. She sighed and waited for the night to deepen. It was cold in the house, cold and damp. There was no central heating and other than a coal fire nothing to banish the icy fingers creeping along her skin. It was too early in the year to spend money on fuel, so she put on more layers and went to bed earlier when the nights were longer.
She sat on the threadbare couch and pulled a shawl around her shoulders. The cat came in and leapt up beside her and the dog huddled down at her feet.
“There’s nothing to do but wait for them to come,” she patted the cat. “And they will come. Why wouldn’t they? The street vermin need to have there blood-lust fed and picking on an old women is the easiest way they know.”
The curtains were left open so the blaze from the nearest oil barrel reflected off the glass. Dark shapes circled the flames and cars drew up from time to time, their occupants in need of the poisons that fed their cravings. The chimes on the mantle clocked counted out the hour. It was cold on the stroke of midnight when she heard them outside her door.
“Wait here, my pets,” she stood up straighter than she had in years and went to answer the fist that was beating on the wood.
“Yes,” she was looking straight in to the face of the yob who had scarred her.
He drew back a little, not sure for a moment if it was her. He was with his friend, his right hand man, as she’d heard him referred too and behind him stood his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, a tight top proudly displaying her swollen belly.
Mark Jones, the yob, could not lose face, so rolling his shoulders back; he started his usual tirade of filth. It began in the usual way.
“Your dog nearly bit my little brother,” he jabbed an accusing finger at her. “You better keep the fuckin thing under control, do you hear me, you old witch or I’ll cut its throat.”
I must say I’m surprised,” Nora caught the look between Mark’s girlfriend and his right hand man.
“I’ll give you surprised, you old cow,” he made his fist in to a ball.
Before he could strike, Nora words stopped him.
“I think you words belie your true natural, after all you are willing to raise another man’s child as your own.”
“What?” Spittle flew from his mouth as he struggled to speak.
“Am I the bearer of bad news?” Nora smiled. “So sorry, but the truth must out.”
“Forget her,” his girlfriend pulled at his jacket. “She’s mad, everyone says so.”
“Fuck off,” he shook her off. “What do you mean?” He asked Nora.
“Ask her,” Nora nodded to the girl, who was retreating down the path.
“Hey, come back here,” all thoughts of Nora were forgotten as he took off after her.
She watched as the girl placed both hands beneath her bump and tried to run.
“There’s going to be fuckin murder,” Mark’s right hand man muttered, as he took off after them.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Nora smiled.
Nora no longer recognised the housing estate that had been her home for over fifty years. The tidy gardens were now littered with an assortment of rubbish from empty drink cans and broken bottles to other unsavoury things she didn’t dare think about. Most of the surrounding houses were derelict and an attempt had been made at boarding them up. The barriers the council put up to keep the human scavengers out never lasted long. She shivered as she recalled the nights spent listening to the groans of the boards as they were wrenched from their housings. The wood was used to feed the huge oil barrels that blazed each night throughout the estate.
“Time to go out,” she picked up her cat, which was dozing on a chair and carried her in to the kitchen.
All Hallow’s Eve dawned dry and cold. Perfect weather for the children to do their trick or treating, Nora thought, as she placed the cat on the ground. It looked at her in disgust before turning its tail up and walking away. She smiled at its antics and watched as it made its way to the bottom of the garden. The trees in the little wood outside the wall looked sombre. It was no longer a playground for children, but a dark, sinister place. She ran her hands down the sleeves of her faded cardigan, trying to brush away the cold. The wood was deserted now, but she saw them at night; the dark shapes scurrying through the trees. The glass shards she cemented in to the wall, in the hope of keeping them out, glistened under the watery sunlight, but they did little to add to her sense of security. The little timber gate in the centre of the wall was kicked down countless times and her hands were too old and bent from arthritis to repair it. She walked back inside and turned the key in the lock. It was wishful thinking that the frail door would keep anyone out. Shrugging on her black coat, she tied a scarf under her chain and picked up her old wicker basket.
“Come on, old fellow,” she called to her dog, Seth. “Time to go shopping.”
He looked up at her bleary-eyed and groaned. Like his mistress he did not relish the daily trek to the shops. She warned him to keep his temper in check as the last time he showed his objection to the way the street vermin treated his mistress it had resulted in a visit from the police, with a warning to keep the dog in check or else. He knew she depended on him for company and he could do nothing more than walk by her side and behave in much the same way as the stupid cat. It made him feel worthless, but if he kept his mistress happy then so be it.
“Come along,” she held the door open for him. “You’ll have no dinner otherwise.”
Leaning heavily on her walking stick she started down the path. She didn’t really need the stick, but it would serve as a weapon if need be. It was still too early for the druggies and the dealers. All would be sleeping off the effects of last night. Nora nodded to one or two of the old neighbours, but kept her head down for the most part. It was best not to make eye contact with anyone and as the pavement was cracked it meant she could choose her footing with care. Seth growled, as a mongrel crept out from one of the abandoned houses, but the animal was too ill and staved to offer any threat. There were many such animals roaming the estate; dozens of feral dogs and cats abandoned in much the same way as the houses.
The only shop still open in the area was kitted out like a prison. Stout bars lined the windows and razor wire ran the length of the roof. Nora ordered the few items she needed and packed them in to her basket.
“I see the eye is healing up nicely,” Joe, the shopkeeper remarked on the cut above her eye.
A stone, thrown by one of the yobs had met it marks and the cut required four stitches.
“Yes, thank you,” Nora said. “It’s not too bad now.”
“It’s a bloody disgrace that decent people can’t go about their business in peace.”
Everyone had an idea of what should be done to better the estate, but no one was acting on it. After saying her goodbyes, she began the short walk home. Seth walked before her, sniffing the ground, searching for new scents. The skeleton of a burnt out car sat on one of the green areas and it became a playground of sorts for some of the children. They were three of them sitting in its ravaged innards now, so Nora crossed the road rather than pass them. They knew she was easy game and would lose no time in picking on her. Things could have been so different, Nora thought if her daughter had lived and her husband hadn’t run off, but that was long ago; too many decades for wishful thinking. She tried to banish such thought from her mind as the loneliness threatened to overwhelm her.
“Look at the witch.”
She picked up her pace and tried to ignore the taunting voice.
“Hey, witch,” the boy ran in front of her and was soon joined by his other two companions.
He was no more than ten or eleven years old and should be in school. Nora knew enough to keep such things to herself and she kept walking.
“Fuckin old witch,” one boy sneered. “Where’s your broom?”
They fell about laughing at this and Nora felt her heart race as they stood in a line blocking her way.
“Let me pass, please,” she hugged her basket closer.
“Let me pass,” the mimicked her soft tone.
Seth bared his teeth and his growls of warning rumbled like thunder in the silence.
“You better watch it,” one of the boys said. “My dad will have that mutt put down if it touches me.”
“Seth will not touch you if you let us pass.”
They eyed the dog warily and moved apart just enough to let her pass. One of them jostled her as she squeezed through and she lost her footing and fell against some railing. She managed to grab one of the rusted bars so she didn’t hit the ground, but she banged her side. Her basket fell from her hands and the contents went spilling out on to the dirty ground. The boys laughed as she staggered to her feet and one of them scooped up the packet of biscuits she’d bought as a rare treat and the bag of sweets for the few children who would call that night. Saliva dripped from Seth’s mouth as he gnashed his teeth and made small lunges at her attackers.
“Don’t,” Nora whispered and the dog drew back.
Tired with their game, the boys started to walk away.
“Thanks for the goodies, witch,” one called over his shoulder.
Nora concentrated on picking up the rest of her shopping. Her side ached and she could feel the bruise begging to form in her skin.
“Come on, Seth,” she was glad of the solidness of the walking stick as her knees shook from fright.
The boys had returned to the burnt out car and their laughter followed her all the way home. It took her a while to get the key in the lock of the front door as her trembling fingers refused to stay still. Placing her basket inside the door, she turned back and looked back to where the boys were sitting. Seth followed her gaze and looked up at her in question.
“Do you know what tonight is boy?” She looked down in to his big eyes. “It’s All Hallow’s. Do you remember, Seth?”
The gleam within his eyes flared until they burned like fire. Of course he remembered, but that was long ago and something his mistress ordered he forget.
“That’s right, boy. Tonight belongs to us and it’s time we showed those who torment us the full meaning of Halloween.”
Her cat, which was lurking in the bushes, ran forward and rubbed against her legs; purring her pleasure at her mistress’s words, because black cats remember too.
copyright © Gemma Mawdsley
Hello to all my friends on WordPress and sorry I haven’t posted for so long. I’m working on my new novel for young adults, Shadow Self and numerous other projects, so it’s been a very busy few months. Just popping in to say that I will be posting a new story for Halloween on Friday next. Well, I couldn’t let the occasions pass without a ghost story. I’m writing it at the moment and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I am enjoying writing it. Until Friday my friends, stay safe.
For all those who died-stripped naked, shaved, shorn.
For all those who screamed in vain to the Great Goddess, only to have their tongues ripped out by the root.
For those who were pricked, racked, broken on the wheel for the sins of their Inquisitors.
For all those whose beauty stirred their torturers to fury; and for those whose ugliness did the same.
For all those who were neither ugly nor beautiful, but only women who would not submit.
For those quick fingers, broken in the vice.
For those soft arms, pulled from their sockets.
For all those budding breasts, ripped with hot pincers.
For all those midwives, killed merely for the sin of delivering man to an imperfect world.
For those witch-women, my sisters, who breathed freer as the flames took them, knowing as they shed their female bodies, the seared flesh falling like fruit in the flames, that death alone would cleanse them of the sin for which they died-the sin of being born a woman who is more than the sum of her parts.